The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Bell’s nightmare continued

This post is a continuation of “John Bell, bibliographic nightmare.” I began to write these posts while entrenched in the difficult task of cataloging the library’s myriad copies of Bell’s 18th-century Shakespeare publications as a means of sharing a look into the unique, maddening world of Mr. Bell. In the last post, Sarah and I shared some background information about John Bell and why I considered him a bibliographic nightmare. In this post, I’ll give you one specific example of the mysteries and rewards of cataloging his editions of Shakespeare.

The Folger Shakespeare Library’s collected editions of Shakespeare’s works and plays are shelved chronologically, based on Library of Congress call number classification. If more than one edition was published in a given year, the shelf-marks have an added letter following the date to mark the distinction. For example, in the year 1788 Bell produced two editions of the Plays in 20 volumes, one fine paper copy in octavo, or 8vo, format (1788a) and one regular paper copy in duodecimo, or 12mo, format (1788b).

Bell’s 1788 Edition of Shakspere in 20 volumes, 12mo format (1788b) on the left and 8vo format (1788a) on the right

Records for these two editions may be found following these links in Hamnet:

While the contents of both formats of Bell’s 1788 Dramatick Works are the same, the 12mo edition consists of plays, illustrations, and annotations which had previously been sold individually by Bell (the 8vo edition had not been sold in individual parts).

Regardless of whether the edition is in the 8vo or 12mo format, the contents of the 20 volumes were as follows: volumes 1-2 comprise the prolegomena, while volumes 3-20 consist of two plays with two engravings each, accompanied by their respective annotations upon the plays. Each volume has a volume title page dated 1788 designating its contents, as seen in the volume 3 title page:

Volume title page for volume 3 of the 1788 Bell

Although the volume title pages were dated 1788, the other sections of the editions carried different dates. Here is a break-down of contents and their individual dates for the idealized first edition in 20 volumes in either 8vo or 12mo format:

  • Prolegomena, in two volumes, with imprints dated 1788
  • Volume title pages dates 1788
  • Individual plays, with title page imprints dated 1785 or 1786
  • Copper-plate engravings dated between 1784 and 1788
  • Annotations upon the plays, dated 1787
  • Each volume with a half-title page giving us the name by which we typically refer to this edition: Bell’s Edition of Shakspere
half-title page for Bell’s Edition (1788)

Of the 12 copies in the Library designated as 1788b, 9 are really Bell’s “Bell’s Edition” (not a made-up copy from one of his successors) and of those, only 7 were bound in 20 volumes.

various copies of Bell’s 1788 Dramatick Works in 12mo format

1788b copy 4 is where things really get interesting! Copy 4 consists of 59 numbered parts in the original bookseller’s printed wrappers, now housed in 15 boxes (you can see the boxes in the upper right of the above photo). Upon examining the first 3 parts in box 1, I groaned to myself while preparing to search for a matching bibliographic record in Connexion or for any other matching reference. This edition was obviously not the same 20 volume edition as the others!

The undated wrappers state “Bell’s edition of Shakspere’s works … sold by the proprietor, British Library, Strand.”

Bell’s Edition of Shakspere (1788), parts 1-3 of 59

The front wrappers also list individual plays in a different order than how they were intended to be bound in 20 volumes.

list of plays as printed on the front wrappers

Here is a general list of the 59 parts:

  • the first 36 parts are the plays, numbered per front wrappers (a different order than how they were to be bound in 20 volumes) and with title page imprints dated 1785, 1786, or 1788;
  • parts 37-40 are Prolegomena;
  • parts 41-58 with two Annotations per part;
  • part 59, with the title pages and half-title pages for the first 20 volumes, along with lists of contents and subscribers

The only point of reference that I was able to ascertain when searching “Bell’s edition of Shakspere’s works” comes from a handful of records from the Bayerische StaatsBibliothek, München in WorldCat. The library had created individual records for the plays in their collection, as well as for Prolegomena, so this was not a multi-part or multi-volume set. The cataloger listed an untraced series statement “Bell’s edition,” which seems pretty generic, considering all of these publications, no matter when or by whom they were printed, have that statement at the head of the title page. The cataloger also added volume numbers to the plays, which correspond with how the plays are numbered on the printed wrappers in our set—again, unlike the order of the 20 volumes. That information, added with a digitized volume of the Staatsbibliothek’s copy of All’s Well That Ends Well showing a variant printed wrapper displaying the title of the play therein, has helped unravel a bit of Bell’s printing history for me.

Part 59 consists of the title pages and half-title pages for the first 20 volumes, along with lists of contents and subscribers. Looking carefully at this information, it seems that this multi-part set was intended to be given to a binder to be turned into the 20 volume edition. For one thing, Tempest (numbered part 1) has a loose leaf of instructions “to bookbinders, corrections and additions to the directions for binding Bell’s edition of Shakspere’s works.”

instructions to bookbinders from part 1

Could it be that the volume-specific leaves, the 20 half-titles, v.1-20 volume title pages, and the contents notes and list of subscribers in the bound sets of volume 1 were simply lacking? It seemed too good to be true that these materials which would tie the entire work together made-up the final part 59, yet that is exactly what it is!

In summation: In 1785 and 1786, John Bell printed and sold the 36 plays individually, as numbered in the left-hand column of the table below. He then issued the same editions of these plays, along with the Prolegomena and annotations, as the 1788 collected Plays in 20 volumes, in the order shown in the right-hand column of the table (the annotations follow each play in the same volume).

Order of plays as sold individually in 1785 and 1786:1. Tempest
2. Measure for Measure
3. Macbeth
4. Much Ado About Nothing
5. Hamlet
6. Romeo and Juliet
7. Merchant of Venice
8. Merry Wives of Windsor
9. Julius Caesar
10. Midsummer Night’s dream
11. Titus Andronicus
12. Twelfth Night
13. Love’s Labour’s Lost
14. Timon of Athens
15. Troilus and Cressida
16. As You Like It
17. Othello
18. Comedy of Errors
19. Henry V
20. King Lear
21. Henry IV, part 1
22. Henry IV, part 2
23. Taming of the Shrew
24. Cymbeline
25. All’s Well That Ends Well
26. Henry VI, part 1
27. Henry VI, part 2
28. Henry VI, part 3
29. Richard III
30. King John
31. Henry VIII
32. Richard II
33. Winter’s Tale
34. Two Gentlemen of Verona
35. Coriolanus
36. Antony and Cleopatra
Order of plays in the 1788 20-volume edition:vols. 1-2. Prolegomena
3. Tempest; Two Gentlemen of Verona
4. Merry Wives of Windsor; Much Ado About Nothing
5. Measure for Measure; Comedy of Errors
6. Love’s Labour’s Lost; Midsummer Night’s Dream
7. Merchant of Venice; As You Like It
8. Taming of the Shrew; All’s Well That Ends Well
9. Twelfth Night; Winter’s Tale
10. Macbeth; King John
11. Richard II; Henry IV, part 1
12. Henry IV, part 2; Henry V
13. Henry VI, part 1-2
14. Henry VI, part 3; Richard III
15. Henry VIII; Coriolanus
16. Julius Caesar; Antony and Cleopatra
17. Timon of Athens; King Lear
18. Hamlet; Titus Andronicus
19. Troilus and Cressida; Othello
20. Cymbeline; Romeo and Juliet

This information about the plays separate issues and order is confirmed by the printed wrappers, such as those of the German library’s digitized copy of the 1786 individual play All’s Well That Ends Well, “being the 25th number of Bell’s Edition of Shakspere’s Works,” and the numbering of the wrappers on Folger Library’s 59 parts. It is further confirmed by bookseller’s advertisements, such as one found on page 183 of a Bell’s non-Shakespearian publication, announcing the publication of Bell’s 1785 Hamlet, “being the 5th number of Bell’s Edition of Shakspere’s Works….”

That 1788b copy 4 is the complete set of the 59 parts intended for binding provides insight into a tiny bibliographic mystery. Matching the numbered plays on ephemeral wrappers, both from the Folger’s copy and the German library’s variant individual plays, helps to illuminate Bell’s publication history. The original printed wrappers, binder’s instructions, and physical make-up of these parts offer a look at the stages of production which were lost with the binding process. While we might not be able to determine why he broke the numbering order between the individual plays and the bound volumes, this clue might help cut confusion when trying to identify which Bell’s book is which—maybe! 1

Since first putting this catalog record together, I have come across other instances of an edition being offered bound in X volumes or in Y individual numbered parts, although such instances do not consist of a final part made-up of title pages and contents notes. These later editions, Harding’s and Munroe & Francis’s, were intended to be sold in either state, bound or in individual parts.

Finally, I would like to thank and acknowledge Renate Mesmer and Linda Hohneke for consulting about the housing and Rachel Bartgis for her creative solution to housing the 59 parts of copy 4. I was worried about two issues concerning the 15 boxes in which the parts were housed by a previous owner. The first issue was the possibility that the acidic boxes might cause future damage to the materials. The second, more pressing concern was for the fragility of the wrappers as they were removed from the boxes. As the boxes are sturdy and attractive, it seemed safer to retain them as housing, rather than create 59 acid-free sleeves and envelopes, which would not guarantee loss of paper as they were removed.

Rachel spent an afternoon measuring and folding thin acid-free “covers” for each part. These covers will protect the wrappers from handling as well as any acidity from the boxes. The newly covered parts are also to be placed spine-out in the boxes, to highlight which numbered part is which, as penciled on the spine, for ease of handling.

the first three parts, now safely housed


  1. Note that while I have taken a stab at describing the issue with Bell’s extremely confusing set of publications, I do not presume to think I have figured it all out!

One Comment

  • I have inherited some Bell’s Shakespeare and in several volumes the actors names are present, though not in others. How would I go about understanding what I actually possess? The engravings are so beautiful. Some volumes include other ‘New Books published by John Bell. Very confusing, and fascinating.

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